This story was a ride and the ending was a trip. It had the quality of a dream. Though upon further thought, the whole story had that quality. It almost felt like one of those mid-century lava lamps, a little trippy and a lot fluid. There's a flood of shape-shifting in this novel, by creature and story. The landscapes were many, some magical and some not, some of the dream world and some of the waking world, some of the living and some of the dead, and all sorts of lands that had no such defining borders.
The novel is a straight-up adventure story dipped in folklore, with swaths of humor and thought-provoking questions and pearls of wisdom. Though it never preaches, only ponders. The characters all seemed original and even though there are so many characters, and at times they are short-lived, each presence was palpable. There was an intensity to all the characters that made them seem very real.
The story touches on many themes and things. Truth is a huge one as is history and power. It is asked in the novel what makes a better warrior: one with nothing to lose or one with something to fight for (or with everything to lose). If you have nothing to go home to does that help or hinder a warrior on a mission? It's a loaded question. One that is never completely answered, but still is an excellent question to leave in the reader's lap. The story touches on dualities of gender, beast and human, time and space, and life and death. The lines get blurry on all fronts. One gets the sense that nothing is ever what it seems and is subject to change at any moment.
Even though this novel is of the fantasy genre, its prose is elevated to the literary realm. The quality of writing is beyond exceptional. With the exception of a few parts, the reading was a lot clearer than I was expecting. James is an excellent writer that gets deep in the weeds. But he starts off slow, with only one narrative focus, to introduce us to this strange world.
The first line was powerful: "The child is dead." This is followed by, "There is nothing left to know." The beginning of this story was very telling of the journey the reader is about to embark on. And make no mistake, the reader is taken on the journey. Forget thinking you will be allowed to just sit in your comfy armchair, keeping danger at arms length. It's just not that kind of read. For much of the novel, I felt outside of the characters. I was rather right there beside them. It was an interesting vantage point and one not without merit. A clever anchor.
At one point in the novel, a character states that looking for meaning will only drive someone mad. It may drive the reader mad if they try to wrap this novel up in a neat little bow of meaning. It's a messy novel with too many facets. It may behoove the reader to take some gems as a parting gift and leave the story in all its messy glory. One thing that was given a lot of space was about truth to power. How none of us owns the truth and nothing can be done to make truth not truth. Truth is truth even after rulers who spread lies that take root in every man's heart. The manifestation of this is in characters that sing history that doesn't pander to a leaders lies, but which garners it's wrath. It seemed like they were a manifestation of the duality of power and truth. While the former can never truly quell it, it can cast truth as a lie for a time.
The disparate pieces pulled together the last 100 pages. The story ended up being so rich and vibrant and ominous and over-the-top, while at the same time deep and timeless. Ultimately, we each have to answer for ourselves if we want the truth or a good story. How the reader answers that question will skew how one views this novel.